On November 4, 1995, Leandro Andrade stole five videotapes worth $84.70 from a Kmart store in Ontario, California. For that and past crimes of burglary, transporting marijuana and petty thefts he was given a 50 years-to-life sentence.
There are approximately 167,000 men and women incarcerated in California’s prisons. Each year it costs $49,000 dollars to house, feed and care for each of them. According to Charles B. Reed, Chancellor of the California State University system, in an article published July 27, 2009 in the San Francisco Chronicle, Reed states that the costs to taxpayers for one year of tuition for each year of tuition for each CSU student is $4,600. “Therefore we could send 10 students to college for a year for what we pay to house one prisoner. Of course our children have to get there first, and with the massive cuts to K-12 education our legislators have undertaken it doesn’t look like we’ll be sending as many students to college anyway.
THREE STRIKES LAW
Let’s look at more numbers. From 1994 to October 2005 California incarcerated more than 87,500 individuals under the second and third strike provisions of the Three Strikes Law. A total of 7,500 of those received 25 years-to-life sentences, according to Professor Elsa Chen of Santa Clara University. First, let’s focus on the 80,000 prisoners sentenced under the second strike provision, those getting out in the relatively near future. At the current cost of $49,000 per inmate per year. It costs taxpayers $3,920,000 every year these men and women are locked up.
Compare this to the costs of K-12 education. The National Center for Education reports that we spend $9,391 dollars per year for primary and secondary education. Round this up to $10,000 dollars, which translates to approximately $130,000 to give each child a high school diploma. So, the amount we Californians spend to keep all second-strikers in prison each year is equivalent to the amount of money we would spend to give 301,538 students a high school education. I think politicians’ priorities are in the wrong place.
Now let’s look at the cost of imprisoning third-strikers, many of whom are serving 25 year sentences for crimes like petty theft, forgery and burglaries resulting (like Andrade above) in monetary losses to the victim of less than $1,000. It will cost $9,187,500,000 to imprison this population for the length of their sentences. That’s a lot of possible educational dollars our children are being deprived of. It should be evident what a colossal waste of taxpayer monies that corrections has become. We are strangling our future to punish people. There’s got to be a better way.
In a bulletin entitled “Common Sense Corrections Reform Can Allow California to Avoid Early Release” by California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) Secretary Matthew L. Cate, he outlines his plan to cut $1.2 billion from the corrections budget. I was stunned by this statement: “The administration has developed a proposal in coordination with local law enforcement that is smart on crime.” If that were true they wouldn’t resort to scare tactics every time the spectre of prisoner releases comes up.
The CDCR ideology is guided by the desires of the guard’s union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. The union wants to keep as many people as possible locked up to ensure job security for its members. That’s smart on crime from the union’s point of view, but it is costing your children their education.
I don’t suggest just releasing vast numbers of inmates. What I am suggesting is that we must overhaul our current sentences and educate and rehabilitate those getting out so they’re less likely to come right back.
The CDCR is mandated to do just that and has been for years. But in the same bulletin the Secretary of CDCR admits that only 1,600 inmates out of 167,000 have earned a GED and completed vocational training that will enable them to rejoin society once again as productive members. By any standard that’s a dismal failure.
We have to get smart on crime from the public’s point of view. To do this we have to change the way we administer corrections, change from a model that propounds retribution to one that supports education and rehabilitation. The two greatest obstacles facing newly released ex-felons are finding employment and housing. Without a job no one can afford housing, yet the average California parolee has a seventh grade education. There is little expectation that anyone will secure meaningful employment without a high school education at the minimum.
We don’t need more guards or prisons. We can’t afford them, for one thing. What we need are more teachers and classrooms and we need to make certain everybody we incarcerate is compelled to get a basic education. Many changes would have to take place in order to implement such a plan: sentencing laws changed to give incentives and time reductions to prisoners who successfully complete educational and vocational programs, (saving taxpayer money while bolstering public safety).
Parole must become a support and aftercare mechanism to assist parolees in obtaining jobs and housing instead of being a means for keeping prison beds full. This is not being Soft on Crime. This is being Smart on Crime, because a parolee with a job is paying taxes, not wasting yours. And, in the illuminating light of reason, wouldn’t we all feel safer knowing that parolees’ will come out of prison with the education, skills and support he or she needs to find a job and a place to live. That way they won’t be as likely to break into yours.